So you want to become an unscripted television producer. You’ve just found some amazing talent, and you think they’d make for a great unscripted television show. Or maybe you are an amazing talent, and you’re convinced people around the world need more of you in their lives. Or maybe you simply have a really cool idea that you’re convinced would blow American Idol out of the water. Whatever the case may be, there’s a clearer path to getting your content produced than you may think. Let’s dive in to the world of pitching and producing unscripted television.
Isn’t TV Dead?
First, some stats. The number of cord cutters has nearly doubled between 2017 and 2018, but now there’s a new group emerging that’s got everyone even more on edge — “cord nevers,” or people who’ve never paid for a television subscription, and don’t plan to. Within the current pay-TV subscriber population, more and more people are canceling their subscriptions, while a la carte programming is replacing the package-driven models of the early aughts.
In the meantime, the number of original series across broadcast, cable, and online has grown from around 200 in 2010 to nearly 500 in 2017. That’s driven largely by a 680% increase in the amount of content coming from online-only providers like Netflix and Amazon. As an aspiring unscripted producer, you’ll be happy to know that unscripted content represents a whopping 40% of television available today.
Streaming providers like Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube are diving in on unscripted hard. Why? Unscripted is less expensive to produce, faster to turn around, and the right show can skyrocket a platform — plus, today’s unscripted isn’t “reality”; it’s authentic. Audiences are looking for real connections with real characters.
Online-only providers have gained so much traction in unscripted that we’ve adopted the investment-speak term when we talk about them — we call them the FAANGs: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google. They don’t behave like traditional networks, they have deep pockets (when they want to), and they’re closer to harnessing Millennial and Gen Z eyeballs than anyone else. Oh, and there’s that whole real-time, big data, algorithm thing that only they control. They know what you’re thinking.
Here’s where the hill to success steepens. Industry not-so-secret: No one wants to work with you, the “independent producer.” This is the classic chicken-and-egg, “it’s not you, it’s me,” brush-off that newbie producers face when bringing their ideas to the market.
The problem is this: Networks know most shows fail, they put a lot of money into making shows, and producing good content is really hard. They would rather lean on the Bunim-Murrays of the world to produce their content, because working with them removes many variables from the producing equation. Not only do the established production companies speak the ‘net’s language, but they’re sometimes also willing to jump in and “deficit finance,” meaning they’ll pick up part of the bill to produce a show. In a world where every entity is trying to minimize risk, money talks.
So, when you walk in the door with your amazing idea, if you survive the first culling — getting past the assistants and managers — it’s likely you and your idea will be pushed to work with an established production company. More likely, they’ll keep your idea and ask you to leave (whether your name stays with the project at all is another question). But, if you’ve produced something before, have a track record of success, and have proven your chops out in the field on some other show(s), then things are different. Hence, chicken-and-egg — how can you have a proven track record if no one lets you in to produce something without a track record?
Agents and the System
Let’s step back for a second — how do you actually get in the door to show anyone your idea for the next Top Chef meets Deadliest Catch? This is where things get a bit weird. To the uninitiated, it should be as simple as mailing your pitch package to that PO Box they used to flash on the screen at the end of America’s Funniest Home Videos. It isn’t.
The bane of all content producers’ existences is “unsolicited content.” You can’t just ship them your show ideas, because they don’t want to be vulnerable to a lawsuit when, six months after you’ve sent in your Housewives meets American Ninja Warrior pitch, you see it on the air. Most companies will require you to sign forms that they usually call “Submission Agreements.” These agreements are hilariously one-sided; they say something to the effect that you can give them your idea, but it’s not their fault if they use it, with or without you. Seems like a bum deal.
Enter the agents. The main job of agents, who often suggest that you also get an entertainment lawyer, is to leverage their relationships to sell your project. They’re on your team. Though they may also be on the team of the people you’re trying to sell to. So, for example, you find an agent somewhere and set up a meeting with them. They sit you down and lay it out for you: You’ve got an amazing idea, and your idea would be best-served by letting their favorite production company take it into “development.” That’s option one.
Option two is they “package” you. This means that they pull in several of their clients to build your idea into an attractive package — one that contains, possibly, an A- or B-list celebrity, a production company with a track record, a hotshot showrunner, a brand, and some funding. This is pretty great — it’s serving up your show on a silver platter.
There’s a third option, too: They set up a meeting directly between you and a network or streaming provider. In this instance, you’re taken directly into the offices of Netflix, Paramount, or Facebook to pitch your wares. If they like what you’re selling, there’s a chance you could produce it directly for them. This is cool, because you’re cutting out legions of steps between your content and its release — however, it’s likely that if the network likes your pitch, they’ll then ask you to partner with a production company they like. This isn’t a bad thing, but you’ve got to be prepared to surrender any creative control you had hoped to hold on to.
The goal of every pitch, of course, is to get something produced and out to the masses. Everything in between is just noise, so don’t have just one good idea – have your second, third, and fourth in your back pocket and ready to pitch. In fact, if an agent or network or aspiring billionaire likes your first idea, it’s likely they’ll often continue your meeting by asking what else you’ve got.
Ignoring the System
Often, people in the industry will say, “If you’re truly passionate about your idea, just make it and trust that it will find its audience.” I remember hearing this in film school all the time: “Just make your movie!” These proclamations are quickly followed up with some form of, “In today’s world, anyone can be a producer!” (Just like anyone can be a writer/musician/chef/plumber/scoreboard keeper/life coach/motivational speaker/artisanal mug designer.) To me, this is on par with saying, “Just go make your feature film and trust that it will sell.”
Usually, independent producers don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars lying around to make television shows with. Some crafty producers will do the work of an agent and package their project themselves — for example, by finding brand partners to produce content with and then doing a “time buy” on a network, which means simply buying air time to publish your content. Even this approach isn’t that simple, since you have to prove to the network that your content fits their brand, even though you’re paying them to air it. At the end of the day, you’re still pitching them. That being said, this is a viable model that some people (brands) use to great advantage, especially in automotive circles.
Imagining for a moment that if you did self-fund, your content would compete with shows that generally cost $150,000-$350,000 per episode; are produced in an ancient pipeline that virtually guarantees an audience, even if it’s a fleeting one; are made by craftspeople who have done hundreds of episodes in their careers (so they’re really good at it); and are supported by networks who put massive marketing budgets behind their content.
That being said, with the networks squeezing budgets, episodes of unscripted shows are now going out for as little as $50,000 each, so who cares what how much other shows cost? If you do work outside the system, it’s likely your costs will be much lower, anyway, because you wouldn’t be paying “studio rates.” So, you self-fund your show and it’s done. You can now go back to an agent, or more specifically to a sales agent, and enlist them to help sell your show to the networks, domestically, internationally, and on digital.
Or, you can self-publish on a platform like YouTube and see what happens (thus completing the film school professor’s dream). If you’ve catered to a niche, you can find your niche’s channel on a platform like Amazon Prime and sell directly to your audience through a specific channel — amazingly, people find content, even when it’s buried in clunky UI. Self-funding lets you make your show. No one can tell you “no,” and it won’t get mired in months of notes and back-and-forth with strangers. This is great, but the real advantage of self-funding? You get to retain ownership of what you’ve made.
A Note on Content Ownership
In the United States, content platforms (pretty much everyone, with the exception of YouTube Originals) demand ownership of all of your intellectual property (IP), in perpetuity, when they buy your show. Can you make deals that preserve some aspects of ownership? Sure. Every deal is a little different. However, handing everything over is the norm in the United States. This is not the norm in the UK or Canada, where federal law supports independent producers, allowing them to retain the ownership of the content they produce. Retaining ownership is important because content can be sold over and over.
This is what the networks do when they demand you sign over your IP – they exploit it, year after year, forever. As an independent producer trying to build your brand, retaining ownership of your content can help you build your business. If you’ve set your sights on building a production company, this is important, because one day, when you’re ready to sell your company, value can be attached not only to your brand and reputation, but also to your content catalogue, which is a tangible, profit-making asset.
Now that you know the lay-of-the-land and are thinking about the different paths you can take from (un)script to screen, you can create your pitch. What kind of story are you going to tell? One of the things that I’ve always grappled with is the idea that what executives want is different than the things audiences want to see. This is somewhat of a paradox, because you have to please one to access the other (usually). Let’s tuck that one away for now, and look at the mechanics of a pitch.
Pitches are largely about the enthusiasm you bring to the table. If you’ve never pitched, you’d be smart to start practicing on anyone that’s willing to endure you stumbling from one story point to another. I highly recommend joining a group like Toastmasters to help bolster your confidence and skills. Pitching is selling, so get to work on those sales skills.
Beyond your ability to hock a Hoover, there are really no set standard for what kinds of materials you should show up with. “Materials” often include a one-sheet, which is a summary of your show in one page, and a deck, which is like a very fancy PowerPoint presentation, except it’s printed. The deck can include character bios, production team bios, a show summary, episode ideas, and a budget.
Every pitch should also include “tape,” which can mean a lot of things – it can be a “sizzle,” which is a one- to two-minute trailer for your show. It can also be as simple as a recorded Skype interview with your main talent, or it can be a full-fledged “proof of concept,” which is like a mini-pilot, or a short version of one episode of your show. It’s unlikely you’d get anyone to watch anything longer than six or seven minutes, however, so keep it classy. Are you still with me? With that in the back of your mind, what do buyers look for in the narrative of a show?
You’ll have to decide what kind of show you’re making. At the highest level, there are two types of shows: arc’ed and non-arc’ed. Arc’ed means your show is serialized – what’s true on episode one is not true by episode twelve. Non-arc’ed, also called “returnable,” means what’s true on episode one is also true by the end of the season. There’s also the idea of “format.” A “format” is a show that repeats the same formula every episode. For example, American Idol is an arc’ed shiny-floor format competition show, which means that over the course of a season, the format remains the same, but one contestant is eliminated each episode, so it’s arc’ed. As opposed to American Ninja Warrior, which is a returnable shiny-floor format competition show, because each show has new competitors, so what’s true on episode one is also true on episode 100, and anyone could tune-in at any time and know what’s going on. They both literally have shiny-floored stages, so they’re part of a sub-group of unscripted known as “shiny-floor.”
It’s useful to define your show in terms of existing formats because it makes pitching easier. If you know that your show is going to be an Ink Master-like competition format, but also has the lighthearted comedy and runaway charisma of Pimp My Ride, it’s easier to encapsulate. In fact, many pitches will begin with Existing Show A meets Existing Show B. So, if I wanted to make a hosted format competition-adventure show that puts culinary skills to the test, I might pitch it as Bear Grylls meets The Great British Bake Off. I’d call it Cake Boss Survivor. Mashing up formats is a fun game — give it a shot!
In today’s market, networks and platforms are really liking “closed-ended, returnable formats.” A good example of this is a show like Storage Wars. Something that starts over every episode and is built on an easy-to-understand format. Pawn Stars was held as the gold standard for this type of format for a long time. In the case of Storage Wars, it’s, “We’re going to open storage units and see if people will buy what’s inside.” Every. Episode.
Another good example is Queer Eye, which was recently re-booted for Netflix. Can you describe the format of Queer Eye in one sentence? Most networks are also looking for authenticity — gone are the days of soft-scripted Real World-style brawling. Another thing to consider is how expensive your show is to produce – different networks have different levels of programming they call “tiers.” The most expensive content is known as “Tier One.” Many networks are also getting savvy to the need for digital, so it’s wise to conceptualize a sidecar digital series for your show as you form it, as well as any other digital media you can come up with. I particularly like Patagonia’s Bears Ears digital project, though this isn’t tied to an unscripted series.
It’s widely recognized in this industry that your first show is a “giveaway,” as in, you’ve given it away for little-to-nothing because you’re determined to get your name out there. It’s a long road — shows generally take two years or more to develop and produce, and many “die on the vine,” meaning that they’ve gone into development but are killed for one reason or another. However, if you have truly authentic content that can give the world great characters and meaningful stories, it’s likely that little can stop you on your journey to bringing it to air. So get out there, pitch often, and enjoy the ride.